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Sudan in 'total panic' as paramilitaries move South

Sudan in 'total panic' as paramilitaries move South
Displaced people fleeing from al-Jazirah state arrive in Gedaref in the east   -  
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"The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have looted everything: cars, lorries and tractors," laments a resident of a village in the state of al-Jazira, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the paramilitaries as they push southwards in war-torn Sudan.

The villagers of al-Jazira hold their breath every time they hear the roar of a car or motorbike engine, so fearful are they of the dreaded RSF paramilitaries.

"On Saturday, seven individuals armed with machine guns and wearing FSR uniforms knocked on my door", Abdine told AFP, declining to reveal his surname for security reasons.

They asked him about the car parked in his garage before "taking it away with their weapons pointed at us", said a distressed resident of Hasaheisa, a town 50 kilometres north of the capital of Al-Jazeera, Wad Madani.

The bloody war that has pitted the Sudanese army against the RSF paramilitaries in Khartoum for the past eight months has forced half a million people to seek refuge further south, in this agricultural state that was until recently spared the violence.

Recently, however, the paramilitaries, who control most of the capital, have been advancing along the motorway linking the capital to Wad Madani, taking village after village and terrorising its inhabitants.

On 15 December, they attacked Wad Madani, forcing more than 300,000 people to flee again, within the state of Al-Jazira but also towards the neighbouring states of Sennar and Gedaref, according to the UN.

Since then, the paramilitaries have continued their relentless descent southwards.

On Saturday, they were spotted "15 kilometres north of Sennar", 140 kilometres south of Wad Madani, witnesses told AFP.

- Looted markets and indiscriminate fire -

"Army planes bombed Rapid Support Forces gatherings to the north of the town, causing panic among residents", other witnesses reported.Since the surprise start of the conflict on 15 April, the army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhane has mainly played its air trump card: it is the only army with fighter jets.General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo's FSR, on the other hand, favours mobile troops perched on pick-ups.

Everywhere they go, women and girls are afraid of being subjected to "sexual violence, a recurring threat" in Sudan, according to the NGO Save the Children.

On the Hasaheisa market, the doors of the stalls were open and the goods that the looters were not interested in were spread out on the ground, an AFP journalist observed.

"Have the RSF come to fight us, the citizens, or have they come to fight the army?" 42-year-old Omar Hussein asked AFP, as shops and vehicles belonging to his family were looted or destroyed.

At another market, Tamboul, halfway between Khartoum and Wad Madani, paramilitaries charged into the market firing indiscriminately, witnesses reported.

- Every room searched" - According to the UN, 12,000 people have died as a result of the conflict, a figure that is surely greatly underestimated given the extent to which whole swathes of the country have been cut off from the rest of the world.

It has also displaced 7.1 million people, including 1.5 million in neighbouring countries, said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, on Thursday, describing it as "the world's largest displacement crisis".

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council expressed "concern" at the intensification of violence in Sudan, while "strongly condemning" attacks against civilians and the extension of the conflict "to areas hosting large populations of displaced persons".

Since the start of the war, the two rival camps have accused each other of attacking civilians.

So, says Rabab, who has also hidden her surname, when the paramilitaries "fired bullets in front of the house before entering, we all panicked".

"They only left after searching every room," she told AFP.

Al-Tayeb, a resident of a village near Hasaheisa, was surprised when the paramilitaries asked him "a strange question: they wanted to know how I had obtained the money to build my house, which I inherited from my father which was built 35 years ago".

An answer that, in any case, will matter little to the fighters. On Saturday, eight people were shot dead by the RSF in the village of Artadhwa because they opposed looting, witnesses told AFP.

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